Our “breastfeeding journey” began six years ago when my daughter was born. Fat, pink, and mewling, June was my first baby. Like a lot of new moms, I assumed that feeding her from my body would be as simple as inserting my breast into her perpetually open mouth. So when she clamped onto my nipple, twisted her head vigorously (ouch), and started mewling again, I was surprised and slightly panicked, dread starting to twist inside my stomach. Wait, what? I thought. Just drink. It’s right there.
Apparently, something called “latch” was an issue. After a tearful consultation with several nurses, my husband and I learned that June’s mouth was supposed to fit around my entire nipple and not just at the very top (again — ouch). Together, we spent the next few hours squishing and sandwiching my engorged boobs to hit her mouth at the precise angle, trying to achieve an optimum latch. My husband was particularly determined.
“This is weird for you, right?” I asked, motioning to my boobs as he squished one between his thumb and forefinger like a mammogram machine. He didn’t even look up to answer my question. “Nope,” he said, frowning. “I’m just thinking of them as feed bags, now.” And for the next year, that’s pretty much what they were.
In 1966, Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson found that some breastfeeding women experienced an “enhanced” sex drive compared to non-nursing mothers. While my knee-jerk response is yeah right, researchers at the University of Chicago in 2004 found something similar. In the study, nursing mothers gave off a pheromone that increased not only their sexual motivation, but that of others around them. Women who were exposed to these pheromones and had regular sexual partners found their sex drives increased by 24 percent.
But for many other women, myself included, the exact opposite is true. Even after the first month of my daughter’s life, once the excruciating nipple soreness had died down and we were somewhat confident she was being fed, sex was the absolute last thing I wanted to think about. A small human was gnawing on me every 45 minutes throughout the day and night. Sex? Not on my radar. I wanted a double cheeseburger and to be left alone to consume it. Nothing more.
Friends of mine who have nursed a baby — almost all of them I asked — felt similarly. When I messaged one friend to commiserate, I could practically hear her sigh through the computer. “I just want my body for me,” she confided. “Pregnant for ten months, nursing for a year or more, and then when the kids are finally in bed and not crawling on me … my husband wants me, too! I just want some time where someone else doesn’t ‘need’ my body.”
At the root of these feelings are the ever-changing hormones associated with childbearing and breastfeeding: After giving birth, women’s oxytocin and prolactin hormone levels skyrocket, increasing even more in response to a suckling baby. According to research, prolactin causes “psychological tension” in a new mother, creating an intense urge for her to see and hold her baby at all times. Oxytocin, on the other hand, causes a sense of well-being and contentment, meaning a nursing mother is less likely to seek out her spouse to satisfy those same feelings. In other words, for the first several months after giving birth, we’re driven by our hormones to be consumed by our babies.
Dr. Jacquelyn Stone, an OB/GYN with Maven Health Clinic, routinely counsels patients who experience a lack of sex drive related to breastfeeding. Because oxytocin and prolactin levels are so high, explains Dr. Stone, estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone are low, which causes suppressed ovulation, vaginal dryness, and a pitiful sex drive. Women who formula feed, on the other hand, don’t experienced suppressed estrogen, so their menstrual periods (along with their fertility and their sex drive) typically return more quickly than a breastfeeding woman. “There are some studies that show breastfeeding women are slower to restart sexual relations than are formula-feeding women,” Stone says, adding that any difference in sex drive between formula-feeding and breastfeeding mothers typically disappears by the baby’s first birthday.
“Part of it is having to do with the postpartum period and just having a baby, whether you’re breastfeeding or not,” Stone says. “You just pushed out a baby or had a C-section, and you’re not getting any sleep and you just don’t feel like you want to be intimate with your partner. That tends to be the same with patients who are formula feeding or breastfeeding.”
For many breastfeeding women, things tend to straighten out by the time babies start on solid foods. By then, breastfeeding has diminished and babies are (hopefully) sleeping in longer stretches, possibly even through the night. As a result, our estrogen levels return to normal and our menstrual cycles return. Our out-of-whack hormones start to regulate themselves, and for many, the thought of sex isn’t completely undesirable. But even sporadic breastfeeding can have an effect on sex drive.
“If you finally conjure up enough time and energy [to have sex] and your sexual play involves nipple stimulation, your partner might be shot in the face with milk,” Dr. Stone says, laughing. “That could certainly ruin the mood.”
That’s not to say it doesn’t get done, of course. But for some of us, sex means stuffing a nursing bra to the gills with tissue paper, using half a tube of Astroglide, and praying that the sleeping baby across the room doesn’t smell milk letdown halfway through the act and wake up wanting to eat. Sex becomes a little more burdensome, a little more involved, a lot less fun.
For women whose sex drive has been dampened by breastfeeding, Dr. Stone offers some hope. “I would just say that it’s something you can get help with,” she says. “If you have a problem when your periods return, it may not be a hormonal problem” that’s at the root of a diminished libido. “I’d always recommend discussing those issues with your health-care provider to get to the root of it.”
Despite the short-term implosion breastfeeding caused on my sex life, I nursed my first child until she turned 1 and promptly got pregnant with my second. With my second child, it was a fully 18 months before I got sick of him biting me and promptly pulled the plug. There’s a reason why people breastfeed: Nutritional benefits for the baby have been well documented and, for mothers, breastfeeding might decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and certain types of cancer. Even with the drawbacks in the bedroom, it’s intensely gratifying to feed your children from your own body. At least, it was for me.